What Project-Based Learning Really Looks Like (Warts and All)

A few weeks ago, I find myself writing notes for this blog post during class, taking a quick break from reviewing a student’s self-designed writing prompt on Google Drive. I’m also done showing another student a few audio editing tips on Garageband.

I’m leaning back in my faux-leather teacher chair, clipboard in hand, scanning the room, and I notice the following: most students are engaged in something, although it’s hard to tell exactly what they are doing, given that they’ve designed their final exam projects in my Digital and Social Media Literacies (DSM) elective class.

I’m removed from being the focal point of the classroom, hoping that playing teacher-as-facilitator will pay off.

Ted is helping Cassie and Jakayla place text on an audio slideshow–he’s a veteran media creator from one of digital storytelling courses, and they seem to prefer listening to him versus me. Devon and Tabitha leave the room with my permission, microphone and notebooks in hand, heading to search for subjects to interview about online vs. real-life personas. They have a look of determination about them that I’ve never seen after passing out a worksheet or test, that’s for sure.  

Allisha is working on improving her digital footprint by creating a blog about her passion for photography but seems stumped. “Mr. B, I don’t know how to set up a background image,” she asks me, programmed to automatically ask the teacher after years of traditional instruction and top-down classroom cultures.

“I don’t either, but I bet one of your classmates does,” I respond.  Sure enough, Brandon comes to the rescue and points out how to make changes on the blog dashboard.  Her blog now displays her picture of a snow-blanketed Kentucky street during a frigid February dawn. It’s another small win demonstrating the potential power of PBL.

Unfortunately, Jaden is starting to nod off as the muffled sound of quiet snoring catches my attention; apparently, he’s lost interest in considering whether or not Google is making us stupid.  

I’d say 75% of the students are working diligently.The messiness of PBL is on full display, but it seems to be working. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’m trying to give students the opportunity to solve problems and collaborate through discussion and technology tools–we’re striving to practice the oft-mentioned 21st Century skills extolled by bloggers, pundits, teachers, and policy-makers alike.  

How We Arrived:

In schools under pressure to raise standardized test scores and challenged by implementing Common Core State Standards, the scene above is increasingly rare. Walk into any classroom and you’ll likely see various levels of direct instruction (including my junior English course). Teachers are under immense pressure to prepare kids for tests, quantify student learning, and cover standards: PBL is often viewed as incompatible with these charges.

Thankfully, my administration is supportive of a balanced instructional approach, leading to my design of Unleashing Digital Storytelling and DSM. These classes are not part of any high-stakes accountability system and I’m allowed and encouraged to pursue PBL.  

With three weeks left in the DSM class, I was still unsure about the final assessment. I’m not a traditional testing fan–I prefer student writing or other performance products–so I decided to let the students design their finals. Edutopia has compiled this comprehensive page of research-based evidence supporting PBL–basically, if implemented well, PBL often leads to better learning outcomes than traditional school work.

Of course, doing PBL well is really tough. The kids and I soon devised a rubric together that would encompass any project type. We analyzed a few projects from previous classes in my attempt to raise the expectations bar. When designing their projects, students also had to identify which skills and learning targets they would strive to demonstrate mastery on over the course of their work. I also required students to keep track of their daily project work via planning documents on Google Drive.  

Despite what I consider to be my best attempt at thorough PBL implementation, some students still floundered and turned in work worthy of two days of effort rather than two weeks of dedicated inquiry. Learned helplessness is tough to break. On the other hand, many students exceeded expectations by allowing themselves to pursue new questions and skills that wouldn’t have emerged in a traditional classroom setting. Overall, I consider the project a success, and I hope to hear more stories of PBL implementation–warts and all–especially in diverse schools with a huge range of student ability.

There’s undoubtedly tension between 21st Century Learning rhetoric–aligned with PBL, of course–and what really goes on in many classrooms due to top-down mandates. I’m worried that until high-stakes testing is marginalized to become a smaller part of student and school accountability, kids will be further left behind with missed opportunities to develop creative, collaborative, and problem-solving skills through PBL.

Teachers, what are some insights you’ve gained regarding implementing PBL in the classroom? If you haven’t tried PBL before, what’s holding you back? To what extent is the testing and accountability industry–and related pressure–holding school systems back from more innovative and student-driven classroom instruction?


  • BriannaCrowley

    Common Curriculum/ Unit Maps


    As always you’ve asked an extremely thoughtful and immediate question: What stops me from trying/implementing PBL in my classroom? I think on a small scale I am always trying to implement PBL, but in a far more limited capacity than some pure-form models. When asking my students to demonstrate skills for a summative assessment or explore their prior knowledge at the beginning of a unit, I often put together a mini-project to work on. I recently told my building principal that on the spectrum of constructivist theory, I am continually pushing for more student-driven learning and less directed instruction by me.

    However, in thinking more deeply about your question, one block to implementing PBL is the very hard work my department has put into realigning our curriculum by having common unit maps and common assessments across a grade level or course. This work has been going on for 5 years now, and we trust each other to be “sticking to the map” –meaning that we all agreed our students should demonstrate the skill of summarizing and evaluating resources by completing an annotated bibliography or we all agreed that to teach the skill of compare/contrast analysis, our students would write a particular type of essay.

    So if I have a great idea to just re-do an assessment, I feel torn between breaking that hard-won trust and commonality we have in order to tinker with my own curiosity–and perhaps conviction–around PBL.

    Now, could I propose that we reexmine our maps to revise and restructure? Sure. But my colleagues and I are not given the time to do that work, and we are also currently realigning and restructuring other courses that are not as far along in this unit-writing process. So proposing that seems like signing up to reinvent the wheel on our own time. Does that make sense?

    So there it is. Perhaps settling for the good at the sake of the better?

    • PaulBarnwell

      Is PBL rigorous enough?


      Great point about curriculum alignment and common assessments.  There is nothing “common” about pure-form PBL!  I imagine comparing similarly open-ended project tasks across teachers, or schools.  Sure, the “eye-test” would give an indication of who, perhaps, was best implementing PBL, but in this era of quantitative data, there are few districts willing to try something so radical.

      Some people critique PBL as not being rigorous enough; after completing this project, I see their point.  For many students who traditionally struggle as far as literacy, inquiry, and other skills go, their final products did not represent two weeks of sustained effort.  Far from it.  But I wonder if younger students continually had encouragement to be curious, discover, and create?  For some students, it was obviously a RARE assessment task to be given so much responsibility and freedom to pursue their goals.

      All schools should have PBL opportunities in at least some classrooms, especially if we are serious as educators about giving kids a range of learning opportunities to demonstrate mastery in various ways.  That much I believe, at this point.


  • Regina


    What holds me back? I haven’t seen my project executed. Tackling digital storytelling and the preterite and imperfect is a bit daunting…I didn’t mention that digital storytelling is new to me too. No matter, I’m over worksheets. I have to give something more meaningful to my students. So this spring break (this week) I will create my own. Then as messy as I can imagine we will jump in head first.  Before we left, we did the Need To Know, I was excited as I watched them perk up when they realized that they could share their digital stories with the bilingual school. …so we will see 🙂

  • Crista L

    I am experimenting now.  One

    I am experimenting now.  One thing that has left me uncomfortable is the lack of a “grade book” of tests and assignements come report card time.  I’m happy with what the kids are producing, and more surprizingly, the parents seem okay with the lack of paperwork comming home.   However, come report card time, I feel like I have not done enough to “grade” them on.  I may just be my insecurity.  


    • PaulBarnwell

      Curriculum Standards?


      What is your content area?  Here’s how I’ll ensure there are standards-based grades and enough feedback to help kids and appease parents (and perhaps make you feel better, too). 

      If I’m doing a project in English class, for example, that ends with a student performance task, I’ll create checkpoints based on what I want all students to demonstrate.  For a podcast project that ended in recorded conversations, students had to demonstrate prewriting, use of textual evidence, and counterclaims (considering other side of issue).   Then there was an overall rubric.  This isn’t a completely open-ended project choice, but there are still opportunities no matter the task to create common assessment checkpoints for all projects types, depending on your design.  Good luck!

  • PaulBarnwell

    I’m over worksheets, too! (For the most part)

    “No matter, I’m over worksheets!”  Love it!

    Tell us more about sharing the projects with the billingual school…what will your projects be about?  Good luck with your implementation.


  • Kyle Jones

    The warts are the best part…

    Hey Paul,

    I’m a fellow PBLer. I’ve spent the last four and half years developing and implementing a PBL classroom with a few colleauges, and the experience is incredibly rewarding and distressing as well, but to be clear, the reward always outweights the stresses. It’s been a challenge, but with an administration’s blessing and support, I managed to create a program that was life changing for me and many of my students. In fact, I’m taking what I’ve learned over the years to another school next year as they work towards a whole-school PBL model.

    What I love about PBL is the warts; life is messy, and PBL encapsulates that reailty better than any classroom I’ve seen. Students having to advocate, collaborate, plan, re-evaluate, struggle with opposition, coordinate with all kinds of people, researching, presenting, and even failing at times is all part of the beauty of PBL no matter how ugly it gets. As you pointed out, the issue for many is the testing and stress that teachers feel from having to perform in a way that prepares students for testing. Well, to be blunt, anyone wanting to try PBL needs to let that go. The tests will come with genuine learning. There will be times direct instruction is necessary and helpful, but finding that balance is the challenge, not the tests themselves. It’s a model that doesn’t solve all the problems, but again that is life; we don’t live in a vacuum or some kind of sterile community; it’s messy; messy is good; messy means someone (our students) can help figure it all out with us. That’s a beautiful and very real kind of pedagogy.

    On a quick final note, I had a professor of mine send a link to this post; if you’re at all interested, feel free to check out my own blog about PBL and teaching and maybe we can stay a bit connected. Thanks for sharing your insights and being real with them!



  • Kyle Jones

    The warts are the best part…


    I’ve spent the last four and half years developing and implementing a PBL classroom with a few colleagues, and it has been a tranformative experience for me. My pedagogy has changed dramatically in the time I began my PBL journey, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s messy, but that is most beautiful part–no matter how ugly it gets at times.

    I embrace the warts because they tell the true story of how we all really learn and interact. We don’t live in a vacuum or in sterile spaces; we live in a world that is often times disorganized and even chaotic, throwing problems at us that humans have spent centuries solving and trying to understanding. PBL allows that to happen in microcosim within our classroom spaces. Seeing students advocate, collaborate, struggle with opposition, interact with professionals, research, present, instruct, wrestle with concepts and meanings, and even at times failing is all part of what makes the warts worth it. We are at times guilty in education of seeking a ‘fix-all’ that we can inoculate our culture with, but every rational stakeholder in education knows at the core it simply doesn’t exist; so it comes down to providing the best possible environment for our students to thrive in that prepares them for a world that has never really looked like the typical classroom. Those concerned most about testing–to be blunt–have to let it go (feel free to sing the Disney’s Frozen verse in your head right now). Direct instruction has its place, but we are only fooling ourselves if any of us ever believed we retained our learned skills and knowledge from hearing information from the educational pulpit. We have to experience it, and experience is messy; messy is good; messy means there is a place, time, and space for us to work on making sense of it all with our students. Innovation follows, which in turn will breed test scores that will be just fine. And honest, ‘just fine’ really is fine with me.

    On a quick last note, if you’re ever interested in what I’ve been working on the last several years and continue to do within my classroom, I’ll leave a link to my own blog below. You can catch me on twitter @theprofjones as well. Thanks for sharing your ‘warts’ with us!


    • PaulBarnwell

      I agree with messiness.


      Thanks for this. There are so many nuggets of wisdom you’ve left with us.  “…experience is messy; messy is good; messy means there is a place, time, and space for us to work on making sense of it all with our students. Innovation follows, which in turn will breed test scores that will be just fine. And honest, ‘just fine’ really is fine with me.”  Unfortunately, ‘just fine’ isn’t ok with too many education leaders, despite the fact that an overreliance on quantitative data from standardized test–questionable ones, at best–is a hugely flawed at measuring student learning.  Messy is ok with me, too, although it can get really messy when you’re trying to implement “true-form” PBL with marginalized students who may be lacking in various literacies to be able to excel.  

      Is more direct instruction (at least a good chuck of it) the answer?  Or when you have a 16-year old who struggles with the basics, should we unleash the messiness of engaging students in a PBL-type setting?  It’s not an easy answer.

       I checked out The Studio project at your high school, and I’m truly impressed.  It’s a shame that this type of experience is so rare at schools with at-risk kids.  Perhaps this is the type of experience that would “hook” more students.

      • Kyle Jones

        Good instruction takes many forms

        Thanks for the response, Paul.

        Two ideas here. Good instruction really can take several forms even in the mess that can be true PBL. Every year of the Studio’s existence we’ve tweaked and modified top to bottom to align it best with our students needs; well, that’s the caveat. PBL won’t look great every time it’s tried; rather, it takes teachers wading through the mess sometimes and moving components around to fit the needs of their particular students. It’s time consuming! It’s not fun at times, but it’s absolutely necessary! Which brings me to my second thought concerning your point about the derth of literacies some students come to the classroom. True, our primary idea of literacy is at times not emulated by all students, but I’m not sure the issue lies with us somehow pulling these students into an accepted canon of literacy. It’s a goal to bring students to more accepted forms of literacy and help them learn to code switch between written, visual, and verbal tasks, but I’m a big believer that these same students come to my classroom with literacies we often times don’t recognize in our classrooms. These nuggets of knowledge they possess can be leveraged to work them into literacies they are considered defecient in. I tend to get more buy in from my more marginalized students when they see that I recognize them as an expert in a field of their interest and acknowledge that they know something deeply that is not commonly praised or even acknowledged in school.

  • Mitzi


    I feel very torn right now with project based learning.  On one hand we’re hearing we should be implementing them, yet on the other I’m struggling to see how.  We have been consistently told that with Common Core we have less standards and therefore should have more time to implement PBL’s but I’m not seeing it.  This is my second year teaching Common Core Math and it will take me until May to teach all the required standards.  Our last student day is May 23rd.  I want to try and implement more PBL activities in my class, and was on that path.  Then less than a month ago we were infomred that our new state test will cover 6 subjects while the past 5 years we were tested on only Reading and Math in my grade level.  I know that with PBL you can cover multiple subjects, however I teach at the elementary level and feel like my students have to have some skills and standards in place before these projects can be truly successful.  I hoping for answers soon, because the way I see it Common Core curriculum along with the new testing requirments don’t exactly measure up to what we were promised.

    • Kyle Jones

      There are always speed bumps

      You can’t do much about the curveballs the state or even your district will throw at you from time to time, but I’d encourage you not to let that derail your overall effort. Scaffolding for projects is very important as you allude to, and those listening and interpreting will be able to use that direct instruction and apply it to their possible project work. I’d like to point out though that sometimes we want to believe that our direct instruction ensures that we’ve covered the required topics for an upcoming test; that gives us some comfort; “at least I spoke about and practiced everything they’ll see;” but the truth is that it doesn’t matter if your working within a the norm of a classroom or using a PBL model, the child who isn’t listening or engaging in your lecture and worksheet practice is the same kid who will struggle through the project–the difference is the PBL gives the kids a chance to be far more engaged in the process if they were not engaged in the first place. Also, those that are attentive to your lecture and initial practice will gain experience through a PBL process, which I will always contend is where real learning happens–experience. This is all food for thought of course. I teach English, not math. There are different challenges in your arena, but my singluar, unsolicited advice is don’t give up on trying. It’s really difficult at times, but I have never regretted the switch I made to PBL nearly five years ago. Good luck!

  • Rick Lasley

    PBL Believer

    Paul – I applaud your work and any other educator out there who is making a concerted effort to employ PBL or other 21st Century teaching strategies in the classroom.  Those teachers who have invested time for PBL in our building over the last couple of years have seen the very rewarding benefits; awakening the creative spirit in the minds of our students.  Yes, even those students who typicially have glazed looks in their eyes and rarely turn assignments in are active learners sitting on the edge of their seats in a PBL classroom.  As a 3rd party observer and principal witnessing these students totally engaged in learning, creating and collaboratively constructing a product is a phenomenal experience to behold!  

    Yes, there are ‘speed bumps’, failed first attempts at PBL, Common Core and other assessment ‘distracters’ that keep us educators from wanting to invest in the PBL process.  However, those teachers in our school who have invested that time are believers.  Our student’s enthusiasm, engagement and ingenious skills used in creating the finished product are all the proof I need as a high school principal.  The teachers who have invested in the process know it as well.  I feel there is a balance that almost any teacher at any grade level or subject can find to employ some form of PBL in their classrooms.  Even more, I feel we OWE it to our 21st century students to at least try…

  • Stacey Bell

    PBL vs Research Projects

    I am an instructional coach.  I am working with my fellow middle school teachers on implementing PBL’s in the classroom.  However, it appears that most of the teachers have gravitated to research projects for each one.  They pose a question, give students choice, let them research and then have students share what they have learned.  Can you point me to some resources that can help me see there is more to PBL than just research projects?

    • Mario Basora

      More to PBL than just research projects

      Hi Stacey!

      Check out the work from the following websites and support groups:

      Buck Institute for Education: bie.org

      High Tech High: hightechhigh.org

      Expeditionary Learning: elschools.org

      Edutopia also has a ton of PBL resources as well.  

       Best of luck on your journey!